In like a kitten and out like a lamb

Doug Leier

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I know that's not exactly how the traditional saying goes, as I’m substituting a kitten in place of lion to describe the month of March. At least, that's how I'd like to see March unfold, with a beginning, middle and end less like January and more April-ish.

In fact, after last spring, most of us North Dakotans probably wouldn't argue with skipping past the freeze/thaw pattern altogether and instead transitioning right into summer. Save for a few hardy ice anglers, who've already had nearly three months to satisfy their hard-water fishing hunger, it's not easy finding a benefit to a hard, drawn out winter.

We all know a typical winter in North Dakota can produce lion after lion, and the lambs might be limited to a couple of weeks, or even just a few days like last year. After that intense 2008-09 winter, man and beast are ready for a little less winter and earlier spring.

Of course, our preferences don't really matter. With more than a foot of snow during the December Christmas blizzard, and ensuing temperatures pushing to 30 degrees on the wrong side of zero, our winter was off to a familiar pace.

An Alberta Clipper here and another foot of snow there and deer, pheasants and other critters were not only conserving as much energy as possible, but tapping into fat reserves that can prolong their lives if winter lingers into April as it did last year.

So here we are, rounding the back stretch of another winter of discontent not really knowing exactly how our wildlife fared. We do know that animals that live in areas that have good winter habitat are likely faring better than those that live in areas with marginal habitat.

Many people think that we can “help” pheasants and deer by feeding them, but there's no shortage of studies that indicate heavy winter cover trumps food availability when it comes to winter survival. I’m not saying food isn't important, but a place for pheasants to get out of the wind is more important. Exposure is much more of a factor than starvation in winter pheasant deaths.

The good news is that even though this winter is colder and has more snow than average, it's not as severe or as long as last year. Remember, November of 2009 was practically balmy compared to November 2008, which came in with a major snowstorm over the western half of North Dakota. So far, this winter has been about a month shorter than last year, with not as much snow and not quite as cold.

As March presses on, the grip of winter may loosen and then tighten up again before a full release. It is a critical month as far as winter mortality. While young, old and weak animals likely succumb first during a severe winter, the longer it lasts, the higher the overall mortality.

I hate to use the comparison of a flood, but it's not the first month of winter or first inch of water. More often, it's the last storms of winter and final crest. So here's one guy hoping and praying for March coming in like a kitten and going out like a nice soft lamb.

Leier is a biologist with the Game and Fish Department. He can be reached by email:dleier@nd.gov

Posted by Doug Leier under Field Journals on February 24, 10 08:01 AM | Permalink

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